Living Our Promise: A Prelude to the Strategic Plan – October 29, 2020

October 29, 2020
President Robert W. Iuliano
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

As delivered.

Good morning everyone, and thank you for coming together today.

Over the past several months, many of our discussions as a community have necessarily centered on COVID-19, and how we best adapt our education to support our students in these unprecedented circumstances. While we will continue those conversations as the planning for the spring semester concludes, today is not about COVID-19.

It is, instead, about charting our future. It is about the important, promising, and, yes, essential work of setting our direction through our next strategic plan.

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of witnessing something that has special resonance in an academic community: my son’s defense of his dissertation. His studies have focused on the theory of cosmic inflation in the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang.

Hearing about the science caused me again to marvel at humanity’s creativity and curiosity, and the extraordinary strides in understanding we’ve made. It also encouraged me to think anew about our responsibilities to our students—about how we can best provide them with the tools to harness this creativity, this capacity for wonder, this instinct for exploration and understanding.

And yet, I also look out at a world with deep problems: an existential environmental crisis, fissures in our polity unlike we’ve seen in decades, the persistence of racism and injustice, a global pandemic that both endures and destroys.

Here, too, I think about our students. How we prepare them to navigate this world in all its complexities and flaws. How we help them to make a difference in their search for solutions and progress.

This is the world into which our students will graduate—a world filled with hope and challenge, joy and struggle. As we begin our strategic planning process, the question for us is one we have asked since our founding nearly two centuries ago, but that arises now in a context of urgency and unparalleled complexity: how do we best prepare our students for the world that awaits?

Since arriving on campus, I’ve listened carefully to students, faculty, staff, trustees, alumni, parents, and friends as they reflect on the College they have come to know. I’ve witnessed the exceptional education we provide. I’ve studied how we describe ourselves to ourselves and to others. Through this, I’ve come to understand that the answer to how we best prepare our students is not found in some radical reconceptualization of who we are. Rather, it is found in a commitment to reinforcing and building on our strengths. To being yet more deliberate in helping students lead lives of meaning, service, and consequence. To Living Our Promise.

At its heart, Living Our Promise means inspiring our students to lead those lives of meaning, service, and consequence—and then showing them how to do so.

This work can’t be advanced solely through the curriculum, as essential as that is. It must find resonance across the entire student experience. If we expect students to engage in, and here I quote from our mission statement, “effective leadership and socially responsible citizenship,” we must be more intentional in teaching them ethical leadership skills, in fostering teamwork, in helping them understand how to bring about change, in providing hands-on opportunities to apply what they have learned.

These commitments are grounded in the characteristics that make this an extraordinary institution. They are commitments that will help our students find their path—and that will help them bring light and inspiration to their lives and careers. They advance a core value of the College to “effect change for the greater good.” They emerge from the history that is distinctive to this campus, a reverberation of Lincoln’s call to action.

In short, these commitments speak to who we are and draw sustenance from what makes this College special.

Through this work, we will also achieve something of profound significance for our College and for our collective future. We all know that the higher education landscape has become increasingly competitive and increasingly disrupted, especially for liberal arts colleges. If we marry the best of a rigorous liberal arts and sciences education with a more integrated and intentional student experience—one focused on helping students convert their aspirations into action—it will help answer this most important question: why Gettysburg?

How, then, can we best Live Our Promise?

Informed by the conversations I have had across our community, including with trustees, members of the faculty, and members of the administration, my thoughts have coalesced around what I have begun to call the Four Pillars of a Gettysburg education.

In a moment, I’ll describe these Pillars. As I do, please reflect on three abiding commitments:

First, we are committed to excellence. This is central to who we are as a community. We offer an educational experience of tremendous quality. This has always been, and always will be, the foundation to a Gettysburg College experience.

Second, we will ensure a fully integrated student experience. At a residential college, the students’ education is not confined to the classroom alone. Rather, it builds with every interaction during their four years here. We want to make certain that our mission and objectives are reinforced through everything we do and through everything our students experience.

Finally, we will proceed with intentionality. We are at a unique juncture when there is a serendipitous convergence of a number of institutional processes—processes that will largely define our institutional identity and student offerings for years to come. This provides us with a rare opportunity to distinguish Gettysburg in a special way.

The Pillars represent a road map, a set of principles that derive from our core strengths and what today’s students need to thrive in today’s world. The work of the strategic plan is to bring the Pillars to life through programming and through the creation of a truly integrated student experience. That is where the promise of the Pillars lies. It is also where the wisdom and creativity of this community is essential.

So, let’s walk through the Pillars, starting with the first, a rigorous liberal arts and sciences education, because without it nothing else matters.

It’s the bedrock of a Gettysburg College experience. Our education exposes students to the world. It teaches them how to think, how to marshal facts and evidence, how to communicate effectively. It broadens their intercultural understanding, and enhances their capacities for empathy and action. Through exposure to the arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, it equips students with an orientation to make sense of, and respond effectively to, a world that has become ever more complex and interrelated.

This is a position of enormous strength for us, given the dedication of our faculty and the quality of our academic offerings. It also underscores the vital importance of our ongoing curriculum review. It is critical that we build from first principles. We must recognize that the capacities and knowledge with which a successful student must graduate today are very different from those when we last examined the curriculum nearly two decades ago.

An updated curriculum matters as well because our student body is changing in profound ways—racially, socioeconomically, and academically. It is, therefore, important that we as a College are authentically open to change, not for the sake of change but to ensure that today’s students are graduating with the qualities that will help them find purpose and consequence in today’s world.

We owe this to our students. We owe it to the society into which they will be graduating. Next, if we want our students to be effective advocates for change, to engage the world in ways that will leave a lasting impact, we must acknowledge that these skills do not come naturally. They must be taught, learned, and practiced.

In short, our second pillar involves teaching students HOW to have an impact, how to convert their aspirations into action.

We must ensure that every student graduates from Gettysburg College with a clear understanding of the tools of government, public policy, and effective and persuasive communication. In other words, that they have been afforded a form of civic literacy, a true comprehension of how their ideas can be translated into purposeful action.

Next, our students must graduate with a deep appreciation of diversity and inclusivity. An understanding that diversity is a source of excellence. That their own potential, and the impact they can have in their lives and in the world, will be enhanced through the ability to navigate, bridge, and find strength from difference.

And lastly, our students must graduate with essential capacities of ethical leadership, including self-awareness, team building, compassion, and empathy. These skills will not only help them in their careers, but also in their lives—and in lives of those they touch.

We have programs that speak powerfully to each of these areas, but how can we be more intentional and more integrated? How can we make this a defining aspect of a Gettysburg College education? How can we be sure that every Gettysburg student is afforded the same opportunity to shape their future through these experiences?

This work is transcendent, and reaches across every discipline at the College. Whether our students are advocating for additional resources for scientific research, or running a lab; if they want to bring attention to climate change, fight for racial justice, support the arts and humanities, lead organizations, or engage with their local PTA, our students will need to know how to persuade and, at times, how to advance causes that matter to them. They want to be effective, they want to have an impact. Our job is to make certain they have the necessary skills.

Although nearly every liberal arts college aspires to graduate engaged citizens, few act in a purposeful way to focus their education on this form of civic literacy and comprehension. We know that this will lead to increased philanthropic support for the College. We see it in the funds we received from Teagle Foundation to study how best to integrate civic literacy across the student experience. We also see it in the recent generous commitment by Daria Wallach to fund a professorship in Peace & Justice Studies—a program devoted to teaching students how to be effective advocates for change

This generation of students is eager to raise its voice, to be heard, and to make a difference. At Gettysburg College, we will teach them how.

While our second pillar is all about teaching students how to have an impact on society, our third pillar is designed to ensure that students have curated, hands-on opportunities to apply what they’ve learned, and in the process, more fully come to understand the world and their place in it.

In short, we want to help our students put their education into practice.

What I’ve come to understand since arriving here is that so many Gettysburgians discuss and debate big ideas, but they are equally as driven to act upon them, to find concrete solutions to real-world problems. To “Do Great Work,” as we say.

How can we reinforce this instinct for action, and cultivate an environment in which every Gettysburg student is afforded relevant hands-on learning experiences? How do we prioritize and underpin opportunities for student-faculty research and creative activities, fellowships, internships, study abroad, and the many offerings that provide value and vibrancy to the student experience?

It we want students to graduate equipped to advance work that matters to them and to society, it doesn’t just happen. Students need to be stretched and challenged here, and now, so that they graduate ready, willing, skilled, and confident. We need to do more to help guide students into career paths that speak to their passions and talents.

There is no better place to do this work than at Gettysburg: a place that helped shape the course of our democracy; at a College with excellent programs, inside and outside the curriculum, that already speak to the necessity of giving students the chance to test what they have learned through hands-on experiences; on a campus whose very proximity to Washington and other cities holds the promises of offering our students experiences that few other colleges can match; and at a College whose network of alumni and friends is as supportive and expansive as any institution you’re likely to find.

This leads us to our final pillar: integrating the curricular and co-curricular experiences of our students.

Gettysburg has remarkable academic programs, and equally remarkable co-curricular programs. We know this. But there is more we can do to give our students the opportunity to reflect on, synthesize, and truly integrate what now often occurs on separate tracks.

We want our students to graduate with more than a collection of experiences en route to a degree. We want them to graduate with a clarity and understanding of what they learned here, and who they became here.

We will do this through our programming, to be sure, but also through our advising, our mentoring, and career counseling that focuses on the whole student.

These Four Pillars—grounded in education, understanding, application, and integration—will serve as the blueprint for our next strategic plan. We know from market research that this work also has the promise of attracting new students and families to Gettysburg College. The Pillars will elevate our institution’s defining characteristics—and most importantly—position our programs to complement and strengthen one another in new and captivating ways. In ways that are also distinctive among liberal arts colleges.

Let me return to a point I made at the outset. The Pillars speak at the level of principle and objectives; what will make them come to life, what will cause them to distinguish us from other liberal arts colleges, are the steps we take to translate the objectives into compelling programs, both in and out of the curriculum. For this to occur, it needs your thoughts, your input, your creativity. This is the work of our strategic planning process.

This work matters. For our students. For their futures. For society.

This work also matters in the arc of our College, as we have both a significant opportunity ahead of us, and the equally important need to confront, with clear eyes and a sense of urgency, the many challenges in our path.

I will start with the unusual gift we have been given. Several of our core institutional processes are converging at this very moment in time.

Our existing strategic plan expires at the end of the academic year.

We are beginning a comprehensive review of the curriculum—the first in 16 years.

Our planning for our next accreditation cycle is but a year away.

We will soon begin planning for a comprehensive fundraising campaign. And, with my first year behind me, mindful of the challenges and opportunities before us, it is important that I put into motion an institutional process to define our College’s priorities and our path forward.

By themselves, each of these processes will shape our College over the next decade. But they should not be done in isolation of one another, but rather brought together, so that they enhance one another, strengthen the other, work in unison, and fortify the whole.

In the words of my presidential forbearer, Milton Valentine, “Our work lies invitingly before us.”

While the convergence of these institutional processes offers the promise of a welcome wind at our back, we must also proceed aware of the demographic and financial challenges in our path—and our need to confront those challenges head on.

Let me start with the demographic realities.

As we have repeatedly discussed, higher education is on the cusp of an industry-altering shift—a shift that, in many ways, has been accelerated due to the pandemic and its economic impact on today’s high school students and their families.

Before COVID hit, national projections estimated that the college-bound population would decline by 16% beginning in 2025. Given the economic displacement students are now experiencing, however, it seems clear that changes are already occurring—especially in New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Mid-West. Our primary markets.

These demographic concerns are being augmented by other factors—growing price sensitivity, an increasing desire for concrete skills that affects the perceived benefit of the education we provide, questions about what is often described as the value proposition of a liberal arts education.

We are already seeing the consequences of this changing market.

Simply put, our student body has been getting consistently smaller over the past decade. At our highpoint, in 2013, we had slightly more than 2,700 students enrolled. This year, the number is closer to 2,500—or a decline of 200 students across the entire student body.

The entering classes over the past two years suggest that this downward pressure will not only continue but, absent action on our part, potentially accelerate. From 2010-2018, the entering class averaged 725 students. The last two classes—the latter of which was affected by the pandemic—were 9% smaller, averaging 660 students.

Now, a smaller class is, in itself, neither good nor bad; it depends on characteristics of the class. On many academic and demographic measures, the classes we’ve matriculated over the past decade have been getting stronger and stronger. For example, the Class of 2024 was the most diverse in our history. US News most recently ranked us 34th in the academic quality of our entering class. These trends are encouraging; indeed, they are essential as we seek to do the necessary work of further enhancing our national reputation and foothold. I am committed to sustaining them.

But we should not let these characteristics, as important as they are, obscure a central reality: demographic and other environmental factors have made the competition for a smaller college-bound population increasingly intense. The colleges that will thrive moving forward are those in which students and their families find value, resonance, and meaning.

The demographic context also has a direct bearing on our financial resources.

Like most of our peers, we are funded principally by what we receive in room, board, and net tuition. In fact, 80% of our operating budget comes from these three sources. As I noted a moment ago, we have roughly 200 fewer students enrolled today than we did 2013. That’s 200 fewer students who are contributing to the operating costs of the College.

Beyond that, as is true for most liberal arts colleges, our discount rate has steadily risen. Over the past five years, it has increased 10 percentage points, from 41% to 51%. In other words, on average, Gettysburg College students today are paying only half of our stated tuition.

These dual trends—a smaller student body and higher discount rate—are not new to us, and the College has taken careful and calibrated steps in response. Still, they represent a clear call to action on our part. If unaddressed, fewer students paying less in net tuition will result in meaningful operating deficits. We expect such a significant deficit in this fiscal year—in the millions of dollars—even segregating expenses specific to COVID-19. No healthy organization can sustain such deficits in their operating budgets over the long term.

It is, therefore, fair to ask: what does all of this mean?

Let me start by saying this. This is a strong institution with resources, both human and financial, that most colleges and universities would envy. My prior work gave me a broad vantage point across higher education. I chose to come here, to this College, because of an abiding belief in this community and its future. Even with the many challenges we have faced this past year, my optimism in the vibrancy of our future is undimmed.

It’s undimmed because the education we provide is as essential today as it has ever been. It is true in terms of the ways our graduates serve society. It is also true in the ways in which we already prepare students for the lives they will lead, including professionally. That said, it is clear that we, ideally working with other liberal arts colleges, must find more effective means in making the case to parents, prospective students, and external funders.

But I do not want to downplay the demographic and financial realities.

This is why today’s conversation and our strategic plan are so important. It is why we must approach this work with a sense of urgency and authentic openness; why we must be creative and risk taking; why we must emphasize the interest of the College as whole over narrower considerations; why we must make tradeoffs and choices, and not privilege the easy over the necessary; why we must not default to small or incremental steps.

Most importantly, why Gettysburg College cannot and will not stand still.

Our work ahead starts with the strategic plan and the potential it has to attract the most talented students to our campus. The liberal arts and sciences colleges that will thrive in the years ahead are those that have the strongest national reputation and that offer a dynamic and contemporary student experience. Those that help students ready themselves in tangible ways for their personal and professional lives.

We will need to find ways to become less tuition dependent. And we will do this, in part, by securing new revenue streams for the institution. We know our location is a considerable draw for many across our nation. We know our faculty are talented and dedicated teachers. How can we build upon these and our many other institutional strengths? New sources of revenue may take many shapes—including innovative curricular offerings that attract life-long learners seeking access to a Gettysburg College education.

Likewise, we will plan in earnest for our next fundraising campaign. The campaign will properly focus on the programmatic ideas that emerge from the strategic plan. But it will also include other essential priorities emerging from the campus, including advancing our commitment to access through financial aid and generating resources to support innovation and excellence in teaching and scholarship.

We need to reimagine our administrative and academic structures to ensure that we are amplifying their reach and impact. We have finite resources and we must be willing to put them behind those activities that will best advance the future we seek for the College. We must ensure that our resources and expenses better align.

Finally, we need to reassess the right size of our student body. We know that demographic and other external factors are resulting in smaller entering classes than was true a decade ago. We need to respond to the implications of the changing class size. We also know that a smaller class can strengthen our national footprint if it helps us admit a yet stronger student body on academic, diversity, and certain financial metrics.

I’m nearing the end of my comments, and I look forward to your questions and thoughts, to which we will turn in a moment. I say this with an appreciation that it will take some time to reflect on our conversation today. Please note that we will soon establish a website, where we will provide updates on the strategic planning process. There will also be a way for you to submit your feedback and comments throughout the course of our work. Your voice will be invaluable to our progress as we move forward.

Today, I have focused on our goals for the strategic planning process and provided its analytical framework. If we do this work well, I am confident that it will attract a more robust philanthropic pool, permit us to compete yet more effectively for external funding, and let us recruit a yet more talented, diverse student body. It has the promise of strengthening our national presence and our appeal to tomorrow’s students.

I have not spoken to what the process itself will look like. In the coming days, I will send a note to the community outlining the structure and the associated committee memberships.

In brief, however, I anticipate four committees, including the Curricular Review Committee already underway, which is advancing the work contemplated in the first pillar—creating a robust and contemporary academic experience for our students. A second committee will be responsible for making recommendations that will bring Pillars two, three, and four to life. We will also have a committee devoted to the work I just referenced—the need to reimagine our structures, resources, and size. Finally, we will convene a Strategic Planning Committee, which will consist of the co-chairs of the other committees and will be responsible for ensuring that a truly integrated, innovative, and inspirational plan will emerge from the process.

Faculty and staff will be on each of the committees, which will also engage the full community, including students, faculty, staff, trustees, parents, and alumni. I look forward to the wisdom and creativity that will emerge from this work and from the engagement of our community.

Let me conclude with this: our College’s history is marked by adaptation, by transformation, by navigation through opportunity and through turbulence. Guided by the vision and hard work of our predecessors, our physical footprint has expanded dramatically. Our approach to pedagogy has likewise moved from a fixed curriculum to an offering of 65 academic programs across a variety disciplines. Our student body, in size and demography, would not be recognizable to most of my presidential forbearers.

It is now our turn at the wheel, our turn to meet our responsibilities as stewards of this venerable institution. Are there challenges ahead? Certainly, but those challenges pale in comparison to the opportunities before us. The opportunity to build on our values and strengths to shape the paths of our students in ways that few other colleges can do. The opportunity to be yet more purposeful in inculcating our students a commitment to service, to contribution, to something bigger than themselves. The opportunity to equip them with the full range of skills necessary to translate their aspirations into action, to realize their dreams, and to serve humanity in ways both big and small.

I am looking forward to beginning this work with all of you. Let us Live Our Promise to the fullest, and join together in designing this College’s brightest future.

Thank you.